The young woman in the black sweatshirt was indignant. Across the negotiating table, a stern, occasionally sharp-tongued adversary was refusing to budge—first on wages and then on the organization’s social-media policy. “We’re a hospital,” the woman said with marked intensity. “Don’t you agree that our first responsibility is to our patients?”
Nearby, a cluster of people were engaged in a fierce debate on the fairness of random drug tests for employees. Over in a far corner, a third group traded opinions on whether to accept management’s proposal to offer new hires 401(k)s instead of pensions. “It’s just for new employees,” said a guy in a purple T-shirt. “But we have to think about solidarity,” replied a young woman in clear-framed glasses.
The speakers weren’t impassioned union representatives or managers concerned with the bottom line. They were juniors at Niles West High, an economically diverse school in the Chicago suburbs serving approximately 2,500 students. The collective-bargaining simulation was organized by the DePaul University Labor Education Center, which runs the exercise in 10 high schools to introduce students to economic justice and the negotiating power of unions. For most of the teenagers, it was the first time they were exposed to what unions do—not to mention their first encounter with terms like “HR,” “401(k),” and “union security.”
Lessons like these help students gain critical-thinking skills and give them an opportunity to learn about workers’ rights and labor history—subjects that are often missing from classroom discussions, educators say. And with a stack of studies suggesting that the decline of unionized labor since the 1970s has deepened America’s economic inequality, some argue that teaching students about organizing might offer a chance of preserving the country’s middle class.
“Many of the gains made by the labor movement, people just take for granted,” says Matthew Hardy, communications director for the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), which hopes to introduce labor history and bargaining exercises in five school districts this fall. “From things like workplace-safety laws to child-labor laws to vacations, holidays, civil rights, Medicare, Social Security, you name it—these didn’t appear out of thin air…. Working people standing together did that.”